The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Ten


                        The Bandstand Inn was one of those signature buildings that old towns cherish, that allows the word quaint to stay in common usage, and that Historic Districts and Registers were created to protect.  Built in 1767, the Inn was gray narrow clapboard with original twelve-over-twelve pane windows and a stout red door that creaked as Jill pushed it open.  The interior was dim after the bright morning sun outside, and it took a moment or two for her eyes to adjust.  There were stairs leading up directly in front of her next to a main hallway, and large rooms on either side.  The room on the left was a sitting room, wallpapered in green and white, with a number of overstuffed, floral-print upholstered chairs.  An older woman sat in one corner, glasses in hand, holding the newspaper close to her face.  She heard Jill enter and looked up, nodding politely, then returned to her reading.
            Jill moved across the hall into the opposite chamber, a dining room filled by several small wooden tables, a glass vase with a single flower in the center of each.  There was a doorway in the rear, and through it emanated the sounds and scents of breakfast being prepared, along with the low crackling of an AM radio station imprecisely tuned.  Crossing the room, Jill poked her head into the tiny kitchen.  A slender man stood at the stove, bifocals on his nose, red apron neatly tied over his slacks and cardigan.  He seemed intent on the omelet he was making and the National Public Radio program he was listening to, and Jill’s appearance and quiet knock on the doorjamb startled him.
            “Excuse me, Mr. Brewster?” 
            “Yes?” Arthur Brewster looked over his bifocals at Jill.
            “I’m Jill Ward,” she volunteered nervously.  “I’m a friend of Ted Gray’s.”
            “Then,” Arthur smiled warmly, “we have that in common, young lady.  A pleasure to meet you, Miss Ward.  What is it that I can do for you?”  Jill blushed slightly, and looked at her hands, then back up at Arthur.
            “I heard that no one knows Ted better than you do, that you were close to…to his parents.”  The older man’s expression grew stern.
            “I was close to the Grays,” he stated simply, flipping the omelet over.  “And I have known Ted all his life.  As to knowing him well…” his clear, proper voice trailed off, and he left the stove to switch off the radio.  For a brief moment the only sound was the muted hiss of the electric burner and the cooking eggs.  “Miss Ward,” he finally continued.  “I am not sure any of us knows Ted Gray well, least of all him.”  The omelet was ready, and he slid it onto a white china plate.  He placed the plate on a copper serving tray along with some rye toast and a glass of orange juice.  Sweeping past Jill he carried the tray into the dining room.  Setting the tray down on one of the tables, he removed the apron and stepped into the hall
            “Mrs. Henneberry!” he called.  “Your breakfast is ready, dear lady.”  Coming back into the kitchen, he fixed Jill with a long, appraising look. 
            “Come with me for a moment.  Perhaps we will both learn something,” he said.
            She followed him through the kitchen into the back hall, and through a wide set of doors into a low-ceilinged back room that was filled with books and old maps.  Arthur carefully collected a pile of papers from a straight-backed wooden chair and indicated that Jill should sit. He glanced at the papers in his hand and sighed, setting the stack down on a cluttered wooden desk that faced out the window and across the alley to Charlie’s.
            “My book,” he admitted ruefully, smiling at her.  “Always almost finished.”  He sat as well, and crossed his legs, folding his hands in his lap.
            “You write?” Jill asked brightly.
            “Oh, yes,” Arthur replied.  “Bits here and there.  This sad effort,” he indicated the papers, “is my disservice to historical fiction.  But you came asking about Ted Gray.”  She nodded, encouraging him to continue.  “I take it you are not merely friends with our Ted?”  She reddened again.
            “I – I don’t know yet,” she answered honestly.  “It feels like something is happening, but he seems so angry, and so sad.”  Arthur nodded.
            “He is both of those things, to be sure.  Mostly with himself, I think.  Ted Gray was born to greatness, Miss Ward.  His mind is of the first rank.  He inspires love and trust in those around him.  He is kind and thoughtful and giving, and if he chose he could accomplish most anything he wanted.  But he is here in Stockbridge, where his family has been for hundreds of years, and he will not let himself leave.”
            “But why?” Jill asked.  “Why is he here?”  Arthur spread his hands.
            “Part of it is duty, I think.  When his parents…passed, I think he felt there should be a Gray in Stockbridge.  He was an only child, without brothers or sisters to ease that burden.  He was a hero as a boy, you must know that.”  Jill smiled, a little wryly.
            “We went to school together,” she acknowledged.  “Well, at the same time, I should say.  He never noticed me then.”
            “But he has noticed you now?” Arthur’s grin was kind, and Jill laughed.
            “His marks were always flawless,” he continued, standing.  “And you know about the football.  I sometimes wonder if that title game his senior year, that last one he played, was the beginning.”
            “The beginning of what?” Jill asked.
            “Self-doubt, perhaps?” replied Arthur.  “Imagine, Miss Ward, that everything you could ever want was yours, and easily.  The best grades, the prettiest girls, the most touchdowns.  Tall, handsome, smart.  Told by every adult he ever met that he was special and gifted.  Never once did the world disappoint him, until that game.  You should have seen him after.  Not angry or upset, just sort of confused.”  He moved to one of the bookshelves and pulled out a battered folder.  “He still went away, though.  To Yale, and it was as easy there as it had been here.  Grades all perfect, every professor beguiled by the young Apollo and his intellect and charisma.”  There was regret in the voice now, a mourning for something that had been lost.  “Ted Gray was one of those rare few, Miss Ward, surely you can tell even now, even as his bright moon has waned so much as to be but a crescent.  One of those whom the world loves so well, and has endowed so generously, that only ambition is needed to produce historic achievements.”
            Arthur handed the folder to Jill, who opened it to find newspaper clippings.  One had a picture of a mangled heap of steel and plastic that once might have been a car, surrounded by police and firemen.  Even in the still image it was evident that they stood idly, absent any haste that might indicate survivors.  She scanned the attached stories, but what caught her eye was the date:  September 14, 1995. 
            “That’s today,” she murmured, looking at Arthur, who sighed.
            “I know.  I still can’t believe they’re gone.”  He took back the folder and replaced it on the shelf.  “Ted didn’t take it well, as you might imagine.  What does that mean, anyway?  Should a young man of twenty-one be capable of perspective on losing his parents, his entire family?”  His lined face was shadowed with remembered sorrow, and it seemed to Jill the sadness was at least as much for Ted as for his own loss.  Arthur sighed, a rasping sound heavy with weariness, as he sat back down.
            “Anyway,” he continued his narrative, “At first it seemed he would endure the blow and persevere, would continue to ascend to the heights he had always chased. He finished his senior year at Yale, led them to the Ivy League football title, Phi Beta Kappa, all the usual accolades.  Came back here that summer, seemed to be well, though obviously grieving.   He asked me to sell his parents’ house on Brickyard Road, as the taxes were steep despite his considerable inheritance.  Off he went to Columbia Law School, and many of us thought that was last we’d see of him except perhaps in the history books.  But then he came back, beaten and lost.  It wasn’t his parents’ death.”  Arthur shook his head vigorously.  “Though many thought that a convenient reason.  No, he remains troubled by their loss and I fear he always will be, but his return here was more fundamental.”     
            There was a long pause, and Jill leaned forward in her chair, waiting for Arthur to go on.
            “He is terrified, Miss Gray.  Terrified of what he could become, if he gives free rein to his talents.  Perhaps even more terrified of making the attempt and failing.  Here, he is always what he was, and never has to face what he is, or what he might yet be.”


  1. The description of the Inn is exquisite, though the description of a fragrant breakfast torture while I'm eating my usual cold bowl of All Bran with Extra Fiber! *laughs*

  2. Love the last line. Love it! Poignant.

    I like this entire chapter, my favorite yet I think. It's the meat and potatoes of the story right here it seems, where we really get to know more about Ted. However, the comment in a previous chapter about the POV changing, it does that in this chapter as well. It's now Jill's story, which I think works here, but just pointing it out since it was pointed out earlier.